Lessons Learned

At the completion of each rescue, it is wise to mentally review it while it is still fresh in your mind. Make a note of all the things that went well and those that didn't. With the luxury of hindsight, did you make the right decisions along the way? Is there anything you would have done differently? Did the cat surprise you in any way, and could that have been predicted?

I am a strong believer in reviewing the video of the rescue because this allows you to watch the rescue without all the distractions of thinking about your climbing situation and safety. With the video, you can focus on watching and listening to the cat, and you will likely notice much about his behavior and reactions that you missed while in the tree. Take note of where the cat's focus is directed and what you are doing at that time. He may be reacting to you or to something else in the environment. There are many lessons to be learned in a review of the video, and this is one of the best ways to improve your rescue skills.

Every rescue will not be flawless. You will make mistakes. There are lessons to be learned from each mistake, and, if you are like me, one of those lessons is that I fail to remember the lessons I have learned. I have made the same mistake more than once, and you likely will too. To prevent a repeat of past mistakes, I find it helpful to refresh my memory of past lessons learned before each rescue. It is also helpful, especially for beginning rescuers, to learn from the experience of others by examining the mistakes they have made. With that in mind, I offer the following summary of the most common mistakes that rescuers make.

Approaching a friendly cat too quickly

One of the best ways to turn an easy rescue into a difficult one is to climb up to the cat too quickly. You asked all the right questions of the owner beforehand and learned that this cat is super friendly with strangers and then overconfidently assumed he will be friendly with you and happy to see you in the tree. Yes, the cat is friendly with strangers as long as they approach him properly, but you are moving quickly straight toward him. Maybe the cat was a little nervous about the commotion you created in the tree with your rope installation, and maybe your climbing is shaking him in the tree a bit. Maybe you're thinking this cat is going to be quick and easy, and you would like to get it done so you can go home for dinner. The quickest way to rescue the cat is to go slowly, and every cat, even friendly ones, need to be approached properly. Sure, there are cats who are so relaxed that they are comfortable with a fast rescue, but it takes only a little time and care to be certain, and being wrong can cost an enormous amount of time and trouble and put you both at higher risk.

The video below is a good example of this mistake I made in my attempted rescue of Diamond. You can see that she is relaxed and receptive when I first reach her, but quickly changes her mind when I climb above her too soon.

Failing to get into optimum position for rescue

As you make your final approach to the cat, normally, you will make small incremental advances as you charm the cat and earn his trust, and it can be very tempting to attempt to secure him before you reach your optimal position in the tree. Ideal positioning, that is, solid footing, plenty of empty space around you, and having the cat within easy reach, is not always possible, but it is important that you get in the best position possible for each situation before attempting to handle the cat. Trying to pick up a cat with your body and arm stretched and fully extended gives you no room to adjust if the cat squirms away or needs to be raised higher to be freed from the limbs in which he is entangled. For those uncooperative cats who are just beyond your reach, you may need to climb a little higher or lower to maximize your reach, or you may need to use a webbing loop to create a foothold on a limb or stem to help you reach farther or just to provide more stability, especially when using the catch-pole. You may need to break or cut some small limbs out of your way to provide enough room to secure the cat. Think ahead and mentally practice your maneuver to see what your requirements and limits are before you actually attempt it.

Handling the cat too soon or without knowing if he dislikes it

Certainly, there are cats who are so relaxed and docile that they don't mind being picked up and held by strangers at first sight, but most cats are not like that. Most cats do not want to be touched until you have proven yourself to be basically trustworthy, and an even higher level of trust is needed before they will tolerate being picked up and held. A cat that appears friendly and is receptive to a few pets is not necessarily ready to be handled. Rushing it will lead to a struggle which the cat will almost certainly win. Even if you have earned the trust of a friendly and sociable cat, remember that some cats don't like be to be picked up by anyone, including their most trusted family members, so that is a critical piece of information you should know before you climb.

Failing to prevent the cat from escaping from the bag or net

Some cats don't easily or quickly resign themselves to the defeat of being secured in a bag or net. They are highly motivated to escape at the smallest of opportunities, and if you have not completely secured them, they will escape in a sudden explosion of energy. They are especially fond of waiting till you yell, "the cat's in the bag," to the owner below before they escape so you will feel both embarrassed and annoyed. Depending on where they are, they will either escape back into the tree or fall to the ground. These escapes can happen when using the scruff bag or when transferring a cat from a catch-pole to a net, so, especially in the latter case, practice the maneuver carefully before performing it and pay special attention to the critical moments between releasing the catch-pole noose and cinching the net closed.

Being unprepared

Cat rescue is sometimes like a chess game: it helps if you can anticipate the cat's next move. I have done several long, difficult rescues that I could have ended quickly and easily if I had anticipated the cat's reaction and been prepared with the scruff-bag on my arm at a critical moment. Sometimes, being unprepared is simply a matter of forgetting a piece of gear or intentionally leaving it on the ground because you thought you would not need it. Sometimes, you have the gear with you but forgot to prepare it for use, such as forgetting to have the net ready when you snare a cat with a catch-pole. Other times, being unprepared is simply a matter of facing an unexpected situation and not thinking about the gear you have on hand that would provide a perfect solution. All these situations can often be avoided simply by thinking. Your brain is your most important piece of rescue gear, so don't forget to bring it and use it.

Being impatient

All rescuers would like complete the rescue as quickly as possible, but being rushed is one of the best ways to turn a quick rescue into a long one. Unlike us, cats have no timetable. What's more important to them is to know they are safe with you, so the sooner you can convince them of your goodwill and trustworthiness, the sooner you can complete the rescue. It is certainly frustrating when dealing with a stubborn cat who simply won't warm up to you, but it is best not to let your frustration dictate your decisions and actions. With difficult cats, there is a point where your relationship with the cat changes from friendly to adversarial, but once it changes, you are unlikely ever to earn the cat's trust again. Impatiently trying to make a quick grab of an uncooperative cat who is barely within reach may or may not work, but, if it doesn't, you will have changed the relationship and made the rescue longer and more difficult.

Deciding exactly when to stop being friendly and patient can be difficult. Patience may be a virtue, but, sometimes, it's a complete waste of time. I have had cases where patience turned a potentially difficult, hostile rescue into a sweet, gentle one, and I have had cases where it made no difference. I can't seem to predict which cases will benefit from patience and which will not, so I tend to be patient with all the difficult cats and, consequently, waste time with some of them. By default, I prefer to be patient because that results in more gentle rescues and fewer hostile ones though it comes at the cost of wasted time on some occasions.

Failing to secure the cat bag or net to your harness

You have made a successful rescue and secured the cat in a bag or net, and now you're ready to take the cat back down to the ground. I know it's obvious, but you need to be sure you have attached the bag or net to your harness securely. Several rescuers have accidentally dropped the cat in the bag or net to the ground because it was not properly secured as they thought. If it can happen to others, it can happen to you. Don't just blindly feel the connector to the bag or net going onto your tool carrier or carabiner or whatever you use. You need to watch the connections taking place and test all the connections before fully releasing your grip. If your connection has a locking mechanism, use it.

Misinterpreting cat behavior or vocalization

It is certain to happen: some cats will surprise you simply because you misinterpreted their behavior or vocalization. The only way to deal with that is to learn from it. Study the video afterward to see if you can determine what happened at that moment. Maybe you misinterpreted the cat, or it may be that you were correct but the cat changed his attitude immediately after that due to something else that happened. Study the video to see if it provides any clarity on that moment. Make a mental note of this occurrence and re-evaluate it again in the future in the context of the rescues you did afterward. With experience comes understanding.

Exceeding your physical limits

Rescuing a cat in a tree can sometimes be very strenuous, and we all have limits to what we can physically accomplish. I tore a muscle in my shoulder trying to lift a cat at the end of an eleven-foot catch-pole in the horizontal position. I have become so hot and dehydrated that I literally could not move more than a step without resting. Here in the deep South where the heat and humidity can take a heavy toll, I have often found myself dehydrated before I even begin to climb the tree. I have learned the importance not only of beginning the rescue hydrated, but also drinking during the inspection, planning, and rope-installation process. While people often call us super-heroes, we are not super-human. We are breakable. We don't need to be super athletic, but we do need to know our limits.

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